If you have visited a playground built in the United States in last 20 years, you might have noticed a pattern: cushy rubber surfacing, colorful structures, and surrounded with fence. The playgrounds look great (if they have been maintained), they probably cost a lot and the community pats itself on the back for having built something so safe for their children. The problem is that in the pursuit of safety, we have actually allowed something far more sinister to take its place: boredom.
Boredom is not in and of itself a bad thing. Most adults can wax nostalgic about the days they were pushed out of the house to “go play” and out of boredom they explored, rode bikes, built forts and invented games with their friends. But the boredom that children are experiencing in today’s playgrounds is something new. If you look around a playground now, you rarely see a child above the age of 7 or 8. They are yielding to the siren call of video games and tv because playgrounds have become so sanitized, so safe, that they have lost the intrinsic quality that children seek out in play, which is a healthy dose of risk.
If you look around a playground now, you rarely see a child above the age of 7 or 8. They are yielding to the siren call of video games and tv because playgrounds have lost the intrinsic quality that children seek out in play, which is a healthy dose of risk.
Our society is obsessed with keeping children safe and reducing risk. Parenting today has become a constant battle against a variety of evils (SIDS, kidnappers, processed foods) and to the untrained eye these playgrounds are a panacea. Children are contained. There are no sharp objects, needles, or other dangers lurking in the shadows. The ground will soften any fall. The structure is entertaining enough to give parents a few minutes peace to check their phones. All is right in the world.
Except that its not. Life is risky. Life hurts. Play is how children learn about life. When they are buckled into a car and driven from safe playground to safe playground, these learning opportunities are stripped from them. Not only that, but their health is impacted as well. At the same time that playgrounds and children’s environments have grown ever safer, levels of childhood obesity have risen ever higher. In Philadelphia, 40% of our city’s children are overweight and one in five are obese, which in turn has become a leading cause of adult morbidity. We have to ask ourselves if keeping our children safe is actually causing them more harm than good.
I recently spent six months in London studying playgrounds, collecting data on user demographics, behavior and physical activity. When I returned to United States, I worked with the RAND Corporation and compared the London data with their National Study of Neighborhood Parks. We found that the riskier playgrounds in London had 55% more visitors, and kids and teens were 16 -18% more physically active than their United States counterparts.
The riskier playgrounds in London had 55% more visitors, and kids and teens were 16 -18% more physically active than their United States counterparts.
Obviously, codes that regulate playgrounds in England are far different than the ones that dictate their design in the United States. But more than that is the societal acceptance of risky behaviors in play. Rather than bubble wrap their playgrounds, the English have embraced risk, going so far as to create spaces known as "adventure playgrounds". Essentially empty lots full of discarded materials and tools, these spaces are managed by play workers, whose role is to encourage but not interfere, as children create forts, build fires, dig pits and push their own boundaries through play that is as risky as they want to make it.
The adventure play model is unique and has been adopted in only a few sites across the United States. While open to all ages, it is generally geared towards 6 -13 year olds, when kids begin to age out of standardized play equipment and begin to seek out more adventure and risk. While these sites offer excellent opportunities for development and fun, there are other ways to infuse these same types of behaviors into traditional playgrounds.
Risk is very often about perception. A new experience is frightening until it is mastered, and once conquered, can become thrilling. Playgrounds have the capacity to offer this sense of mastery, designed with the illusion of danger, while still remaining completely safe.
A good example of this is Tumbling Bay Playground at Queen Elizabeth Park in London. Built from reclaimed timber and netting into a series of huge towers, crawl tunnels and elevated perches, it gives a thrill to people of all ages. Another example is Princess Diana Memorial Playground at Hyde Park in London, inspired by Peter Pan and centered around a massive wooden pirate ship that encourages climbing to incredible heights and leaping from the deck into the surrounding sand.
A new experience is frightening until it is mastered, and once conquered, can become thrilling. Playgrounds have the capacity to offer this sense of mastery, designed with the illusion of danger, while still remaining completely safe.
What is fascinating is that, while these playgrounds seem dangerous, they have an incredibly low injury rate. Princess Diana Memorial Playground receives up to a million visitors per year, and yet has only a handful of injuries that require more than a first aid kit. The same can be said for adventure playgrounds. Despite having tools, construction materials and debris strewn about, children are rarely injured.
The reason behind this lack of injury is that children understand risk. In environments that are new and seemingly dangerous, children modulate their behavior accordingly, assessing each step and movement in a way that they do not in places that appear safe. Not only are they actually safer in the environments that seem more dangerous, children find them more attractive, as these spaces give a sense of accomplishment and mastery that the simple structures and rubber surfacing of United States playgrounds do not.
Children spend the majority of their time in school, in child care and in playgrounds. The design of these spaces has a direct impact on not only their physical health, but their mental health as well. The way we design these environments conveys a message to children about how much we trust them to develop their own sense of self. As we look to the future of playgrounds in the United States, do we want to continue the trend of dumbed down, too safe play or are we willing to infuse a little danger and risk into our playgrounds, in order to give our children opportunities to grow.
Meghan Talarowski is the founder and director of Studio Ludo, whose mission is building better play through research, design and advocacy. She has degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, over a decade of experience in the design field and is a certified playground safety inspector. She is currently researching how perceptions of risk impact the design of play environments in the United States and abroad. She has presented her research at conferences held by The Association for the Study of Play and the US Play Coalition.
Reprinted courtesy of AIA Philadelphia. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative.